Tag Archives: evil

Search for God and Find Yourself

God called unto man [Adam] and said to him, “Where are you?”

Genesis 3:9

We read in Genesis that after Adam sinned, he tried to hide in the Garden of Eden. Was Adam so foolish to think that he could hide from God? Certainly not! He was hiding from himself, because it was himself that he could no longer confront. God’s question to him was very pertinent: “I am here. I am always here, but where are you?”

Adam’s answer to God describes man’s most common defense: “I was afraid because I was exposed, and I therefore tried to hide” (Genesis 3:10). Since people cannot possibly conceal themselves from God, they try to hide from themselves. This effort results in a multitude of problems, some of which I described in Let Us Make Man (CIS, 1987).

We hear a great deal about people’s search for God, and much has been written about ways that we can “find” God. The above verse throws a different light on the subject. It is not necessary for people to find God, because He was never lost, but has been there all the time, everywhere. We are the ones who may be lost.

When an infant closes it eyes, it thinks that because it cannot see others, they cannot see it either. Adults may indulge in the same infantile notion – if they hide from themselves, they think they are hiding from God as well. If we find ourselves by getting to know who we are, we will have little difficulty in finding God, and in letting Him find us.

Today I shall…

…try to establish a closer relationship with God by coming out of hiding from myself.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Shevat 4
Aish.com

As human beings, we have the power to remake ourselves and to some degree, even those around us, just by how we behave and how we choose to think of ourselves and other people. A person who goes around chronically depressed or angry is likely to be pretty unhappy and be surrounded by other depressed or angry people.

OK, it’s more complex than that, but the idea is that if you continually involve yourself in doing good and behaving (and even thinking) as if you are constantly surrounded by good people, it is more likely that you will feel better about yourself, and other people will regard you well. At least it beats the alternative I outlined in the previous paragraph.

Rabbi Twerski brings up an interesting idea. People are always searching for God. I myself mentioned that I am continually pursuing God. Why? Is God running away from me? According to R’ Twerski, it’s the other way around. If I feel the need to pursue God, it’s because I’m the one running away from Him. If I need to search for God, it’s because I’m (futilely) trying to hide from Him. In the end, since no one can run and hide from God, all I accomplish is running and hiding from myself, and probably many other people in my life.

Serenity promotes peaceful and harmonious relationships with other people. We have often cited the verse, “As in water, face to face, so too is the heart of one person to another” (Proverbs 27:19). When you speak serenely to someone, the peaceful energy puts the other person in a better state, and usually that person will speak more pleasantly to you.

(From Rabbi Pliskin’s book, Serenity, p.17)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Serenity Promotes Harmonious Relationships”
from “Today’s Daily Lift #234”
Aish.com

SpeakObviously, this won’t work in every single case, but as a general rule, how you speak to someone (or address them in other ways including digital social media) is going to have an effect on how they respond to you.

But remember that all this starts with you and how you talk to yourself.

You are the person with whom you talk to most often. To become a serene person, consistently talk to yourself serenely.

Become aware of the tone of your voice when you speak to yourself. This often is so automatic that many people never consider it an issue. But it can be a major factor in whether or not you are usually serene.

(From Rabbi Pliskin’s book, Serenity, p.37)

-R’ Pliskin
“Speak to Yourself Serenely”
from “Today’s Daily Lift #98”
Aish.com

If you believe you are not a good person and that others don’t like you, chances are you’ll behave as if you’re not a good person and people really won’t like you. I’m not advocating that you become an egomaniac and think you’re the best thing God created since sliced bread, but God did create you (and me) for a reason, and He must have had a good reason for doing so.

I’ve heard it said (I can’t find the source right now) that each Jew should consider the world as having been created just for him or her. I know that sounds pretty bold, but expanding the idea to all human beings, we learn that each individual is precious to God and so we each have a very specific purpose in His design. God just didn’t create a “human herd” and relate to us only as “the masses,” God relates to us as individuals, just as He did with Adam when he tried to hide from God (or rather, from himself) in the Garden.

If each of us is that important to God, shouldn’t we treat ourselves with respect and speak to ourselves with serenity?

One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Mark 12:28-33 (NASB)

I know I’m stretching the interpretation of these verses a bit, but is it too much to consider ourselves as our own neighbor? If how we treat others flows out of how we speak to and treat ourselves, then shouldn’t we first treat ourselves with love and respect and allow that to direct how we speak to and treat others? After all, if we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must first love ourselves.

But the first of these two greatest commandments is to love God. Why? Because He loves us in an unparalleled and unbounded manner. God’s capacity to love far exceeds any person’s capacity, so He loves each one of us far more than we could possibly love ourselves, each other, and much more than we are capable of loving Him.

Life isn’t easy. Even having the most positive attitude possible won’t prevent bad things from happening. It won’t always prevent you (or me) from sinning and letting that sin separate you (or me) from God and other people.

Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting.

Pirkei Avot 3:1

freeIf we keep God constantly before us and don’t attempt to hide from Him (which is impossible) and ourselves, then Akavia ben Mahalalel is right and we won’t (at least not as often) come into the hands of transgression and sin. And if we accustom ourselves to do more good deeds instead, then who we are will slowly change for the good and who we are with God and with others will change for the good as well.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

If we pursue God’s peace, then His peace will find us.

Does the Girl Next Door Have a Python Spirit?

serpentIt happened that as we were going to the place of prayer, a slave-girl having a spirit of divination (lit. python spirit) met us, who was bringing her masters much profit by fortune-telling. Following after Paul and us, she kept crying out, saying, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.” She continued doing this for many days. But Paul was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out at that very moment.

Acts 16:16-18 (NASB)

In Greek mythology, Python (Greek: Πύθων, gen.: Πύθωνος) was the earth-dragon of Delphi, always represented in Greek sculpture and vase-paintings as a serpent. He presided at the Delphic oracle, which existed in the cult center for his mother, Gaia, “Earth,” Pytho being the place name that was substituted for the earlier Krisa.

“Python (mythology)”
-from Wikipedia

My Religion Believes in That?

The Bible, and particularly the New Testament, is replete with tales of demon-possessed people who usually appear in the narrative on the occasion of being driven out of the human host by Jesus or one of his apostles. Up until now, I haven’t given any more thought to demon possession in the world today than I have seeing a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If Cessationists such as John MacArthur believe that the overt manifestations of the Holy Spirit of God ended with the apostolic era, I can believe that the flip side of the coin is also true: the end of demonic possession and supernaturally evil activity on Earth at the closure of Biblical canon.

Imagine my surprise when this topic came up in Church last Sunday and I discovered that demonic spirits were alive and well in the world around us.

It wasn’t just one person, but many people at church, people I admire and respect, people who I believe to be “tzaddikim” (saintly people), were speaking of demons in a very real, credible, and present way.

Let me explain my hesitancy to go down this road.

The last person I knew who talked about demons blamed them for everything that went wrong in her life. If she lost her keys, it was because of a key-hiding demon. If her coffee maker broke, a demon was responsible for that, too. Anything that happened to anyone around her was also demon-caused. A teenage daughter of one of her friends ran away from home and fell in with a bad crowd, so naturally, she had become demon possessed (as opposed to being a rebellious teenager who ran away from home and fell in with a bad crowd).

You can see why that experience colored my perception of the existence of demons in the modern world.

demon-jewishlearningBut I was told a few things in church yesterday. For instance, demonic activity falls on a scale with mere influence on a person being at the low end and full possession and control being at the high end. That means at least some of the bad things that people do or that happen to them (apparently) does have a supernatural source.

I recall when I first became a believer, I was attending a different church. In Sunday school one morning, when the teacher asked for prayer requests, a woman behind me tearfully said that her family was under attack. I thought someone was harassing her household, like an angry neighbor or ex-spouse, but her next words were something about the Adversary (Satan) compelling her husband to gamble away the family’s funds. My immediate (but internal…I didn’t say a word) response was that maybe the “demon” was just her husband’s bad judgment. It’s more convenient to blame an external tormentor than to take responsibility for your own actions.

But maybe I’m being judgmental. You’re going to have to tell me.

What Do Christians Believe About Demons?

I discovered last Sunday, that there are even “symptoms” that can tell you if a person is demon-possessed. Here’s a list:

  • Overwhelming fear: the possessed person is always afraid to an excessive degree.
  • Aversion to anything Biblical/Spiritual: the possessed person can’t stand to listen to scripture being read or any reference to Jesus or God.
  • Pseudo-miracles: the possessed person is capable of supernatural acts.
  • Sexual compulsion: demons are sensual beings and are obsessed with all manner of sexuality.
  • Compulsion: the possessed person may exhibit other types of unhealthy compulsive behavior.
  • Involvement in the occult: the possessed person will likely be involved in the occult including witchcraft and necromancy (I’m combining two symptoms here since they are so alike).
  • Suicidal/Homicidal: the possessed person may try to severally injure or kill themselves or other people.
  • Inner voice: the possessed person will hear an “inner voice” which presumably is the demon.
  • Angel of Light: in seeming contradiction to all of the above, the possessed person can also appear as a very holy and good Christian, getting listeners to believe the one critical lie they’re telling among many other truths.

Fortunately on that Sunday, I was seeing a friend for coffee in the afternoon, a man who has been a Christian for over forty years and whose opinion I highly regard. I “mined his mind” for information on this topic and even he confirmed that demons exist. He said he had been at one exorcism (here in Boise) that he regarded as valid. We did talk about the differences between real and fraudulent experiences, and he acknowledged that some “exorcists” make quite a racket out of this sort of activity, just like fake faith healings, and other sorts of chicanery that occur on the fringes of the Christian world.

I also went online to see what I could find on this topic. Was this belief limited to certain denominations? Not according to About.com. Just about all mainstream Christian denominations believe that Satan or evil spirits can affect human beings in the world today. This includes the Assembly of God, Baptist, and Lutheran branches of the Church.

macarthur-strangefire-confI had heard that even Bible-believing cessationist and rationalist John MacArthur believed demons were real in the present world, and not only did I find an article he wrote substantiating this, but I heard that John MacArthur had been physically attacked by a demon-possessed person in his own church.

A person in my Sunday school class said she was an eyewitness to the event and that the scary part was that the possessed person had been a member of the church for years and, previous to the attack, was considered in high regard as a Christian (I guess this demon was able to tolerate listening to teachings about Jesus, in contradiction to an item in the bullet point list above).

Unfortunately, a quick Google search didn’t find any documentation describing the attack, but apparently it’s well-known in some circles.

John MacArthur doesn’t believe the Holy Spirit can be manifest in our world today but believes he was attacked by a person who was physically inhabited by an evil, demonic spirit. I guess this goes a long way in explaining why he has accused a half-million Pentecostals and Charismatics of being influenced and maybe even possessed by demons instead of the Holy Spirit of God.

I’m not trying to beat up MacArthur or to ridicule the beliefs of who knows how many Christians, but I’m still dazed that I am part of a faith that accepts demonic influences and possession as facts in our day-to-day world.

What Do Jews Believe About Demons?

Demonic possession and many other matters related to the occult appear throughout the Bible. The Torah (see Lev. 19:26 and Deut. 18:14) forbids the Jewish people from becoming involved with any occult practice (not that these prohibitions stopped King Saul). What does Judaism today think about demons and demon possession (and yes, I know that the different streams of modern Judaism probably have different takes on this).

Belief in demons is thus generally present but very peripheral in the Jewish scheme. No representative thinker, for instance, ever thought of dubbing Ibn Ezra a heretic because he refused to believe in demons. Needless to say, sophisticated Jewish thinkers who did believe in the existence of demons did not think of these as little devils with forked tails breathing fire but as spiritual forces which God has unleashed in the world for purposes of His own, or as harmful psychological processes which take place in the human mind.

-Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs
“Do Jews Believe in Demons?”
MyJewishLearning.com

First and foremost it is important to know that absolutely everything in our universe was created by G-d, both what appears to us to be good and what appears to be evil.

Our concept of Satan is an angel created by G-d whose job it is to tempt us. As explained in the Book of Job, Satan cannot operate without G-d’s permission and directive.

There is room in our philosophy for a belief in demons and other malevolent forces but, again, they are creations of G-d and exist as tools to steer us in the right direction and to avoid pitfalls.

-Rabbi Azriel Schreiber
“Demons, Ghosts, and Evil Spirits”
JewishAnswers.org

whispererSo, generically, there is some belief in the existence of demons in Judaism, but it doesn’t seem to be raised to the level of concern I’ve discovered in some areas of Christianity, and like the concept of the “evil inclination” or yetzer hara, it is not something that is evil in an absolute sense, but was created (like everything else in the universe) by God for the purpose of guiding human beings “in the right direction and to avoid pitfalls.”

I did manage to find one rather “dynamic” conversation at Patheos.com about whether or not demons currently exist, but it seems that the overwhelming majority of Christians polled on this question absolutely believe in the existence of evil, demonic spirits.

I’ve got enough challenges in my life of faith without having to be concerned about unseen spiritual forces lurking in the etheric shadows just waiting to slice and dice me in some paranormal manner. Granted, as a person of faith, I have taken on board a belief in the supernatural by definition, but should I walk down the street each day wondering who in the crowd may be possessed by a demon? Feedback would be helpful. Just how worried should I be, or is all this some sort of ancient, theological holdover from a past that should have long since faded away?

If John MacArthur believes in the cessation of all revelation or demonstration of power from God’s Holy Spirit post-closure of Biblical canon, then why does he give credence to the (apparently) vast power of the Adversary to do harm to people in the here and now?

When the Fruit Tree is Silent

the-fruit-treeOne who humiliates another person in public … even though he may be a scholar and may have done many good deeds, nevertheless loses his portion in the eternal world.

-Ethics of the Fathers 3:15

Imagine a situation: you have a fine home, a well-paying job, a comfortable car, and a substantial retirement annuity. If you do a single thoughtless act, you will lose everything you have worked to achieve: home, job, car, and savings. What kind of precautions would you take to avoid even the remotest possibility of incurring such a disaster? Without doubt, you would develop an elaborate system of defenses to assure that this event would never occur.

The Talmud tells us that everything we have worked for during our entire lives can be forfeited in one brief moment of inconsideration: we embarrass another person in public. Perhaps we may say something insulting or make a demeaning gesture. Regardless of how it occurs, the Talmud states that if we cause another person to turn pale because of being humiliated in public, we have committed the equivalent of bloodshed.

Still, we allow our tongues to wag so easily. If we give serious thought to the words of the Talmud, we would exercise the utmost caution in public and be extremely sensitive to other people’s feelings, lest an unkind word or degrading gesture deprive us of all our spiritual merits.

Today I shall…

…try to be alert and sensitive to other people’s feelings and take utmost caution not to cause anyone to feel humiliated.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 2”
Aish.com

I suppose this is a continuation of a previous morning meditation and yet another attempt on my part to appeal to the body of faith. I am aware of a discussion in the Hebrew Roots “blogosphere” that has cast me and a friend of mine in an unfavorable light, but up until now, I’ve said nothing about it. I certainly have no intention of visiting said-blog and attempting to refute the accusations. What would be the point? As we see from Talmudic wisdom, behaving unkindly in response to criticism is unsustainable. Of course virtually all Christians, including those in the Hebrew Roots movement, have little use for the Talmud, so I imagine Rabbi Twerski’s appeal is in vain when applied to such an audience.

Accessing the Bible, do we really get a sense that if we humiliate another person publicly, we’ll lose our salvation as the Rabbi suggests? No? So why worry about it? I guess we are free to humiliate others with impunity, right?

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Romans 1:28-32 (ESV)

OK, that’s a little harsh, even for me. Also, Paul was talking about God’s wrath upon the unrighteous, and that couldn’t possibly include anyone in the body of Christ, could it? Maybe I should look elsewhere for more appropriate scriptures.

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

1 John 3:11-15 (ESV)

That may still be a little over the top, since you don’t actually have to hate someone in order to publicly embarrass and humiliate them. I’m sure my recent critics don’t actually hate me. Given that, is it OK with Jesus then to be insulting?

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Matthew 5:21-22 (ESV)

Hmmm. I don’t know about you, but that one seems to be pretty close to the mark. In fact, it is pretty much identical to the following:

He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though he shed blood.

-Talmud: Bava Mezia 58b

studying-talmudWell, so much for the Talmud having absolutely and totally no relevance to a Christian life of faith. Perhaps a certain amount of the Torah and traditional Jewish halachah applies to Christians after all, if it connects back to what we learn from our Master.

But getting back to the main point of this missive, it seems that (and I’ve mentioned this many times before) our endless series of rants, public insults toward others, and general “bad mouthing” of other Christians with whom we disagree, isn’t exactly “kosher,” so to speak. Unfortunately, when I say stuff like this, the usual response from some quarters is that I’m just an old “softie” and that I’m sacrificing “clarity” and “truth” for the sake of patience, kindness, avoiding envy or proud boasting, and attempting not to dishonor others (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-5).

Obviously, I’m not perfect at it, thus some of the language that I’ve included in this “extra meditation.”

But what are we to do under such circumstances when other believers insist on overlooking both Matthew 5:21-22 and its Talmudic corollary Bava Mezia 58b?

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:14-21 (ESV)

But in making this an issue on my blog, am I “repaying evil for evil” rather than “heaping burning coals” (by heaping kindness) upon the heads of those who are so critical of me? (As an aside, Paul’s quoting partially from Proverbs 25:22, so again, I guess more of the Torah is applicable upon us than we commonly realize.)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Easier said than done, especially on the Internet, when people visit each other’s blogs and make sniping comments like gangbangers doing drive-by shootings. It’s one of the reasons I don’t visit and especially don’t comment on the blogs of some of my “opponents.” My minor effort at not repaying evil for evil and perpetuating the cycle of “drive-bys.”

But this still isn’t working because I’m still writing a message to people who don’t want to listen. There’s no hope of trying to get them to see why what we’re all doing is so wrong. Self-justification is a powerful lure and there’s a tendency to confuse our priorities with God’s.

But if there’s no hope, what’s left?

There is hope, and there is trust in G-d –and they are two distinct attitudes.

Hope is when there is something to latch on to, some glimmer of a chance. The drowning man, they say, will clutch at any straw to save his life.

Trust in G-d is even when there is nothing in which to hope. The decree is sealed. The sword is drawn over the neck. By all laws of nature there is no way out.

But the One who runs the show doesn’t need any props.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Between Hope and Trust”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

shhhhSo I should trust in God to take care of whatever (or whoever) is bothersome and move on. That’s pretty much what Rabbi Freeman said as I quoted him on a previous meditation.

Why don’t people like to remain silent when others insult them? Because they’re afraid that others might think they’re weak and unable to answer back.

The truth is, it takes much greater strength to remain silent when someone insults you. Revenge, on the other hand, is a sign of weakness. A revenger lacks the necessary strength of character to forgive.

(Rabbi Yerachmiel Shulman; Ketzais Ha’shemesh Big’vuraso, p.42; Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Happiness,” p. 302)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #728: It Takes Strength to Keep Silent”
Aish.com

Yeah. I’ve got to work on that one. After all, I can hardly say I’ve advanced further spiritually than my critics if I’m just as prone to the same misbehavior as they display. We shall know a tree by its fruit. In my case, I’ve striving to be a “silent fruit tree.”

Taking a page from Rabbi Twerski’s book…

Today I shall…

…try to refrain from replying to insults that others say to me or to those people I care about and strive to return good for evil.

Balak: The Good, The Bad, and The Gay

In some years, Parshas Balak is read together with Parshas Chukas. For it is the selfless commitment implied by the name Chukas which makes possible the transformation of evil into good. When a person fans the spark of G-dliness in his soul and expresses it through unbounded devotion to the Torah, he influences his environment, negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.

And as this pattern spreads throughout the world, we draw closer to the fulfillment of the prophecies mentioned in this week’s Torah reading: (Numbers 24:17, cited by Rashi, Rambam, and others as a reference to Mashiach.) “A star shall emerge from Yaakov, and a staff shall arise in Israel, crushing all of Moab’s princes, and dominating all of Seth’s descendants.”

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Remembering What Should Be Forgotten”
In the Garden of the Torah series
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak
Chabad.org

Just to let you know, I’m probably going to break every rule that was ever made about writing a commentary on a Torah Portion. In fact, it will probably seem like I’m stretching credibility beyond all reasonable limits. So if you want to take exception for the content of today’s “morning meditation,” you’ll have to look elsewhere. Oh, and today’s “meditation” is really long. Sorry. Just worked out like that. Remember, you have been warned.

In reading Rabbi Touger’s statements which I quoted above, I was captured by phrase, “negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.” On the surface, they sound a lot like something many Christians would be familiar with.

What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.

This isn’t in the Bible exactly, and it’s actually adapted from something Joseph said to his brothers (the ones who tried to kill him) after Joseph revealed his true identity to them (along with the fact that he was still alive).

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. –Genesis 50:20 (ESV)

You can probably point to events in your life when something happened that looked like it was going to be trouble or something actually caused trouble, but it eventually worked out to be some sort of advantage or had a good outcome.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I just wanted to get that particularly viewpoint out of the way.

The evil “wizard” Balaam was hired by Balak, a King, to use his abilities to curse the Children of Israel. If you have even a tenuous familiarity with this week’s Torah Portion, you know about this. You should also know that God told Balaam that he was forbidden to perform the curses and, as it turns out, every time Balaam tried to curse the Israelites at Balak’s behest, he uttered blessings instead.

What was intended to be evil actually turned out to be a good thing.

However, we could spin this idea in another direction. We could say that something that was once considered evil (or undesirable, or unacceptable, or intolerable) has turned out to be good.

Such as being gay and even gay sex.

I separate the two because being gay isn’t really an issue in the Bible since God doesn’t forbid a person from being attracted to the same-sex. He simply forbids the Israelite men from having sex with other men.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. –Leviticus 18:22 (ESV)

In virtually the same breath, God also forbids an Israelite man from having sex with a woman during her menstrual period, having sex with his neighbor’s wife, and having sex with an animal. Most of these “thou shalt nots” make sense to Christians and they are all part of the list of unlawful sexual relations we find in Leviticus 18 (which a friend of mine calls, “the icky chapter” of Leviticus).

Progressive liberal thought has, for decades, supported the right of people to behave freely in accordance with their sexual orientation, be that straight, gay, bi, or transsexual, but in recent months, it’s almost become “popular” to be gay or to be straight and to support gay causes. We see this in everything from President Obama’s public statements supporting gay marriage to how gay relationships are being depicted in comic books.

Politics and children’s entertainment make strange bedfellows.

But it brings up the question that if mainstream politics, entertainment, social discourse, and even comic books are progressing beyond mere tolerance of the LGBT community into active support and promotion of what is being called “marriage equality,” then what impact will this have on the world of religion?

Greenberg-weddingAfter all, atheists and progressives have traditionally portrayed religious people in general and Christians in particular as being backward, superstitious, intolerant, and even bigoted. With the continued dynamic shift in attitudes toward supporting LGBT in the larger culture, what increased social pressure will be applied to people of faith who have long been considered (and in most cases, rightly so) anti-gay? Has acceptance or rejection of LGBT and specifically marriage equality become the litmus test of the progressive left as applied to religion?

It would seem so. But contrary to how Christianity has been painted with the same, broad brush by the media, how the church (I use that term in the most generic sense) responds to homosexuality including homosexual acts, is split along political lines (and Jesus is once again being dragged into the political arena, whether he wants to be or not).

It’s in these contentious times that I do what culturally-concerned Christians should do — turn to Will Ferrell for insight. And insight he brings us…

Yes, it’s the legendary “dear Lord Baby Jesus” scene (from the 2006 film Talladega Nights), where Ricky Bobby prays to the Jesus he likes best, which of course triggers an intensely thought-provoking discussion:

Kyle Naughton, Jr: “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says, like, I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party too. I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”

Walker (or is it Texas Ranger?): “I like to picture Jesus as a ninja, fighting off evil samurai.”

The whole scene is basically a three minute summary of much of what passes for contemporary Christian theology. We invent the Jesus we like best, name that version the God we serve (or partner with), and then find the church (or friend group) that aligns with our vision and — voila! — we’ve got our faith. To be clear, our version of Jesus typically corresponds with some of his attributes, but the picture is always so woefully incomplete.

Gay Rights Jesus is about sex, love, acceptance, and — above all — no judgment (except of course, you can judge someone else’s alleged intolerance). Gay Rights Jesus isn’t bound by your antiquated notions of sexual morality anymore than he’s bound by antiquated dietary rules that maybe involve shellfish . . . or something.

-from “Homosexuality, Morality, and Talladega Nights Theology”
Patheos.com

Irreverent though the quote may be, it tells a certain amount of truth about how we treat religion, adapting it (and Jesus) to fit the moral, ethical, and popular agendas of our society and ourselves.

But it prompts the nasty question of whether or not “commandments” can be adapted, or were intended to be adapted based on the needs of each generation? A blatant example from Judaism are things like cars and microwave ovens that didn’t exist when the Torah was given at Sinai, and they still didn’t exist during the time of Jesus or the later Talmudic period. Once they were invented, someone asked a Rabbi if they could be used on Shabbat, and Rabbinic authority had to consider the Torah and the relevant halakah and render a decision. The commandments regarding Shabbat had to be adapted to fit the needs of the current generation.

But homosexuality wasn’t “invented” recently since the Bible records the prohibition of an Israelite man having sex with another man back in the Torah.

If I were to stop with Judaism, I suppose I could say that the prohibition should remain intact unless some significant evidence is brought forth stating that the Leviticus 18 portion of the Torah was only intended for the ancient Israelites but not modern generations of Jews (but then you have to start asking questions about all of the other forbidden sexual relationships listed in Leviticus 18).

But how many of the Torah prohibitions regarding sex trickle down to Christianity?

In response, it is not enough to point out that Jesus never said anything explicitly about homosexuality or homosexuals. Since he was Jewish, silence cannot easily be filled with a viewpoint that was not common in Judaism in the first century – however much one might go on to insist that Jesus’ views did not always mirror what most people thought.

Jesus taught us to allow love for neighbor and concern for human beings to trump other concerns – even if it leads to healing on the Sabbath or eating sacred bread. Even if it means to breaking other laws, laws which according to the Bible were laid down by God himself.

Dr. James F. McGrath, June 29, 2012
“The Well-Thought-Out Christian Rationale Behind Christian Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians”
Patheos.com

ShabbatDr. McGrath makes the classic Christian assumption that Jesus broke (and therefore invalidated) the commandments regarding the Sabbath (which is highly debatable) and thus, Jesus could have and probably did break other commandments in Judaism including, in this case, those prohibiting homosexual behavior among the Jews.

If we follow Dr. McGrath’s line of thinking and assume it is all correct (and since he’s the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, he’s got a lot of “cred” behind him), then we might make a “quick and dirty” conclusion that Jesus not only didn’t have a thing against homosexual behavior among the Jews (and by extension, the later Christians), but he was all for it (Keep in mind that Rabbi David Hartman says, “The Sabbath, therefore, does not force us to choose between a theocentric focus on the world and the dignity and significance of human existence,” so healing on the Shabbat does not particularly constitute breaking the Shabbat).

Actually, I’m not sure I can take Dr. McGrath’s commentary that far (since he doesn’t), but he does say this:

Ancient Israel’s marriage laws reflected those of the time, and the workings of the marriage institution as an element of patriarchal society allowing men to treat women as property so as to ensure that their other property passed to their legitimate heirs. Times have changed, marriage has changed, and none of the conservative Christians I know who are married are involved in anything that mirrors “Biblical marriage” in all its features.

And so of course our thinking about marriage reflects the wider perspective of our time and place. Thinking about marriage among the people of God always has. And as with so many issues, such as women’s equality and slavery, we sometimes advocating the setting aside of practices that can be justified by careful exegesis of certain Biblical passages, on the basis of more fundamental Biblical principles. We pick and choose from both the Bible and our culture based on overarching principles and convictions about the centrality of love, the importance of justice, concern for the poor, and so on.

I’m fully willing to admit that there are a lot of things in Paul’s letters that I can accept as situational and that were intended to apply only to the specific group Paul was addressing in a certain place at a certain time. But how far can we “relativize” the Bible and the teachings of Jesus before we become guilty of the following?

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight! –Isaiah 5:20-21 (ESV)

How about this one?

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. –2 Timothy 4:3-4 (ESV)

Even if I were to take a conservative Christian approach regarding homosexuality and homosexual acts, I’d have to admit that the commandments can only apply to religious Jews and to Christians. You have to be a member of the covenant before you come under the commandments (OK, Christians believe in a final judgment of all humanity by God, but that’s up to Him, not us). A conservative Christian is able to apply the Bible commandment prohibiting homosexual acts to someone performing such acts as a practicing Christian. However, he couldn’t do so regarding two men who are atheists, gay, and having sex anymore than he could against a man and woman who are atheists, living together as an unmarried couple and having sex (you don’t see a lot of Christian groups protesting against the latter these days).

As far as I can tell, the church has every right to police itself (and given the abuses in the church that occasionally come to light in the public media, perhaps they should) but they cannot apply their (our) own commandments and prohibitions onto the larger culture and attempt (and this is an extreme example) to legislate the Bible into local, state, or national law (even though significant portions of our laws are based on the Bible).

I know that’s what some Christians don’t want to hear.

Getting back to earlier portions of this blog post, are liberal Christians guilty of choosing “baby Jesus” or “Ninja Jesus” or “Gay Rights Jesus” over the closest approximation of “real Jesus” we can gather from the actual New Testament texts to satisfy modern cultural imperatives, or are, as Dr. McGrath suggests, we allowed to adapt the teachings of Jesus to be more appropriate with the needs of the current generations and even to override certain commandments for the sake of loving our neighbor unconditionally and without reservation under all circumstances, no matter what?

There’s no denying that there is an enormously complex set of variables in operation here. For many Christians, just policing their own backyard relative to homosexuality isn’t enough and they want to make the larger culture more “comfortable” for them/us. However, for the past 2,000 years, Jews have constantly lived as a subset of a larger culture that absolutely wasn’t comfortable to them and that existed in complete opposition to all of the commandments held more dear in religious Judaism.

And they managed to get by.

Why does Christianity expect anything different to happen to them?

Last November, I blogged on similar issues in a missive called At the Intersection of Intolerance and Humanity. I don’t believe that the church as the right to commit wholesale condemnation of all LGBT people everywhere as people because of the moral and religious commitments we’ve made as Christians. Perhaps we have the right to do so in our own churches, but this becomes problematic if your church accepts heterosexual couples living together as “OK” but not gay couples living together.

Whether you approve or disapprove of homosexual behavior based on your personal feelings and/or your understanding of the Bible doesn’t mean you have the right to disregard someone as a human being. Jesus expected us to, among other things, visit people in prison, meaning he wanted us to extend compassion to people who are convicted of crimes (and probably guilty of sins) and to treat them with respect. Why is being gay so much worse than being a bank robber, or someone who beat his wife, or even a murderer?

I’m not a big fan of having the larger, popular culture shove their values and ideals down my throat just because there are more of them than there are of me and they have the support of MSNBC and CNN. On the other hand, they do force the body of faith to confront moral issues that we’d just as soon avoid or even condemn, without actually examining what the Bible seems to be telling us, and especially without examining our own thoughts and feelings.

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak offered Balaam a small fortune if Balaam would consent to curse the Children of Israel, and given the fact that the evil Balaam could even speak with God, we have every reason to believe such a curse would have worked to the detriment of the Israelites. But what Balak intended for evil, God chose to make good. Are we to go so far as to say that what God considered evil in Leviticus, He chose to make good in the 21st century?

I don’t know if I can go that far. The popular media outlets are choosing to depict the LGBT community as “especially good” these days. We believers aren’t supposed to decide which people we love and which we hate. (Matthew 5:46). Although we are held to a higher moral standard (atheists and progressives would debate this) than the world around us, that isn’t a mandate to circle our wagons and to restrict love only to our own groups. If God so loved the world, the entire world, and everyone in it (John 3:16) while we were all still enemies of Christ (Romans 5:10), who are we to do any less?

Don’t turn good into evil and evil into good, but do good in order to overcome evil (Romans 12:21). I think rewriting the Bible to fit a modern moral agenda is going too far. But instead of overcoming what we believe is evil by force, we can do what Paul suggested in Romans 12:20 whilst quoting Proverbs 25:21-22

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Doing good doesn’t mean surrendering to evil. It means surrendering to God.

Good Shabbos.

Addendum: For more on loving your enemies, you might want to consider New Testament Scholar Larry Hurtado’s recent (and short) essay, Hermeneutics of ‘Agape’. Also, Dr. Stuart Dauermann presents a somewhat related blog post (not incredibly related but when you read it, you’ll see why I’m including it here) called Re-masculinizing the Church and Synagogue – Toward Addressing the Problem. Food for thought.